Don’t Go Looking for What’s Meant for You…

Irina Echarry

Harassment on the street.  Illustration: Carlos
Harassment on the street. Illustration: Carlos

HAVANA TIMES — A few days ago, I experienced something completely outrageous. On a P11 bus, two men decided to feast their eyes on me, almost in unison. One of them rested his member on my left thigh and the other, a little further away, took out a wad of money and insinuated with gestures that it could be mine if I wanted it.

All of this developed in a nonsensical way, especially because I was left in a paralyzed state of shock, I was filled with fear and embarrassment. An old man was sitting next to me and when he realized what was going on, he fixed his gaze onto a fixed point on the horizon; at times, I was afraid that he might leave through the window.

I asked the young man kindly to move his penis away from me twice, but he decided to play a little, beginning to put it on me, move it away, etc. Normally a very peaceful person and against abuse, I ended up threatening to take out a pair of scissors that I allegedly kept in my bag. In the end, I had to leave my seat and stand for the rest of my journey.

It doesn’t matter if you are more or less attractive, shy or flirtatious, if you dress one way or another; the fact you’re a woman forces you to put up with “refined” compliments, insinuations, whistles, touching, gross sayings, exhibitionism and masturbation in public spaces. When they are less aggressive people call it flattery, and if they go further, harassment.  It’s a culturally accepted attitude, considered natural. The majority of the time we women are blamed for provoking the men.

This isn’t something that just happens here, but several foreign visitors have told me that in Cuba’s streets they feel violated almost all the time. They’ve told me that in some places in Europe it’s easy to guess if the man approaching is going to say something, but here, virtually all do, it doesn’t matter what age, race or intellectual or economic level.

On the whole, those of us who receive this kind of attention don’t know how to act in these situations: some shout obscenities at the harasser; some remain silent and others smile; very few try to talk to their harassers which would allow us to claim our right to remain calm. The lack of support women receive from other people and the authorities is also discouraging, as most of the time we are faced with jokes and a lack of sensitivity.

One day, while I was waiting for someone at Parque de la Fraternidad, so many men came and sat next to me asking the same question: “Why are you here alone?,” until even I began to ask myself that very same question. When one of them went too far, a drunk man, I called out to the police who were at their post in the park. Do you know what they said to me? “Don’t even think about it… Get out of here…” And I had to leave because it was getting dark and I got very afraid. A feeling of fear mixed with fury and helplessness.

The street can be a very hostile place for us women, even those of us who aren’t so attractive. It’s understandable to a degree. Ever since men are little boys they begin to hear that this is THEIR space, and therefore they can do whatever they want.

Gathering opinions from people I know and from my own experience, I wrote up these do’s and don’ts. If you’re a woman and you decide to go outside, whether you’re Cuban or just visiting the island, don’t forget:

  • Don’t wear any comfortable clothes that aren’t long and baggy. Forget about the seasons and get used to sweating.
  • Don’t look about when you’re walking.
  • Don’t go into a bar if you’re not accompanied by a man, even if it’s the only place where they’re selling cold water and soft drinks.
  • Avoid buses crammed with people and, in cars [collective taxis], come up with a way so that your legs never rub against those of the man sitting next to you, however much he moves towards you.
  • Avoid smiling, don’t look a man directly in the eyes ever, it doesn’t matter how old he is; you never know what you might be transmitting to him.
  • Don’t walk in front of a group of men standing idly by, but if they’re working, still don’t do it.
  • Don’t sit alone in a park, in a cafe and never at the cinema.
  • Don’t answer to a stranger calling out to you.
  • Avoid crowds, on a whole, but don’t go too far away from people either, don’t be provocative.
  • Try not to move your hips when you walk.

I’m sure you’re thinking this is a joke, but I assure you that for a lot of people this should be their guidebook for life, the one they teach us at school and which every mother should pass on to her daughters. And then I wonder, if it really was this way, would there be less instances of sexual harassment against women on our streets?


Irina Echarry

Irina Echarry: I enjoy reading, going to the movies and spending time with my friends. Many of the people I love are dead, or are no longer in Cuba. I will do my best to transmit my thoughts, ideas or worries via these pages so you can get to know me. I will give an idea of my age, since it helps explain certain things. I’m over thirty-five, and I think that’s enough information. I don’t have any children yet, or nieces or nephews. There are days when I transform myself into a child with no age at all in order to see life from another angle. It helps me break the monotony and survive in this strange world.

2 thoughts on “Don’t Go Looking for What’s Meant for You…

  • As a foreign student in Cuba, coming from Asia, the catcalling culture I encountered in Cuba initially shocked me, but now 5 years later, (with two years to go) I’m numb to these ridiculous calls for my attention. I’ve learnt that the best way to deal with them is to not engage them by responding. Albeit this sometimes makes these self entitled men annoyed, at which point they start hurling abuse such as whore or bitch my way ? However, avoiding groping hands is sometimes inevitable when boarding the overcrowded buses that run in populous Havana and when in a sardine can packed bus, identifying the perpetrator becomes impossible. Add to the fact my insecurities about speaking the language, maybe I’m an easy target. Irina mentions the nonchalant attitude of the policemen, whom are supposed to instill a sense of security in the people. What’s really to be expected when thsame men in uniform partake in said catcallingA close friend was once slapped in the bottom by a policeman, who was standing with a colleague by his patrol car as she walked past them. That incident was more than enough to make me lose faith in their men in blue / gray…

  • Machismo is one of the scourges of Spanish culture.

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